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Public clouds' green reputation streaked with doubt

Companies hoping to go green with cloud may be left feeling blue, as its energy efficiency is in question. How can enterprises make clouds a greener IT option?

The green movement is a major focus in the world today. As more people go green, enterprises look for ways to join the movement. To try and save the planet, some people choose to own electric cars. However, these vehicles are charged by coal-powered electric plants, so the carbon footprint exceeds some smaller internal combustion engines. Cloud computing has a similar problem.

Cloud computing promoters often discuss the green benefits of public clouds. But similar to electric cars, more digging needs to be done to determine if that's actually the case. 

Clouds may do more harm than good for the environment, according to a report from Greenpeace, an independent environmental organization.

"The cloud is growing at a time when climate change and reducing emissions from energy use is of paramount concern," the report stated. "With the growth of the cloud, however, comes an increasing demand for energy. For all of this content to be delivered to us in real time, virtual mountains of video, pictures and other data must be stored somewhere and be available for almost instantaneous access. That 'somewhere' is data centers -- massive storage facilities that consume incredible amounts of energy."

It's important to consider the cloud's long-term outlook and its potential effect on carbon output. Can the cloud become a viable green IT option? The answer is more complex than Greenpeace and cloud providers make it out to be.

It's true that public clouds add more data centers to the equation. Additionally, existing enterprise data centers can't shut down in anticipation of moving to a public cloud -- enterprises and public cloud data centers must run in parallel for years.  So yes, there will be a negative carbon impact and there's no way to get around that fact. 

There is a path to a greener cloud computing picture, but a few things have to occur.

Four ways to paint the cloud green

First, enterprises need to focus on rapid migration to public cloud resources. In public clouds, hardware and software are shared with other tenants, and typically run at higher utilization rates. Fewer servers are needed to run the same applications, which creates a significant power savings. 

Second, enterprises need to decommission unnecessary servers. In many cases, utilization is less than 3% and enterprises can combine those servers. Unplug as much as you can, when you can. 

Third, organizations need to keep an eye on power usage. There is rarely an incentive to build more power-efficient enterprise architectures. Typically, power costs come out of another budget, and IT sometimes misunderstands usage.

Finally, invest in a power management system for your data center. This technology can automatically shut down systems not in use and move processing to data centers with the cheapest or greenest power sources.

So, are clouds really green? They can be and can make a huge difference in energy consumption. However, enterprises need to migrate applications to public clouds and share infrastructure with others. And that has been slow going.

About the author:
David "Dave" S. Linthicum is senior vice president of Cloud Technology Partners and an internationally recognized cloud industry expert and thought leader. He is the author or co-author of 13 books on computing, including the best-selling Enterprise Application Integration. Linthicum keynotes at many leading technology conferences on cloud computing, SOA, enterprise application integration and enterprise architecture.

His latest book is 
Cloud Computing and SOA Convergence in Your Enterprise: A Step-by-Step Guide. His industry experience includes tenures as chief technology officer and CEO of several successful software companies and upper-level management positions in Fortune 100 companies. In addition, he was an associate professor of computer science for eight years and continues to lecture at major technical colleges and universities, including the University of Virginia, Arizona State University and the University of Wisconsin.

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This was last published in December 2014

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